Spanish soccer powerhouse Real Madrid created a new C-suite position last month, hiring Silicon Valley veteran Michael Sutherland to be its chief transformation officer. Sutherland, a New Zealand native, has led teams at Fortune 500 companies (Hewlett-Packard) and startups (Yost Labs) while taking executive courses at Harvard Business School, M.I.T., and Stanford. Though Sutherland, 37, was reluctant to discuss specific plans so early in his tenure, he shared insights about industry trends and trajectories in advance of Real Madrid’s La Liga opener this weekend.

SPORTTECHIE: What will your role as chief transformation officer entail?

MICHAEL SUTHERLAND: It is a role that some of the more progressive companies around the world are starting to add to their executive suite. This is a step by Real Madrid—it’s a very progressive step—that says, ‘Look, we have been able to maintain our leadership position, and it’s not by chance. And now we’re thinking about not just how we maintain the leadership this year and next year, but we’re really thinking about the next decade and beyond.’

Real Madrid’s chief transformation officer, Michael Sutherland. (Courtesy photo)

And, really, that’s what this role is about. It’s about making sure that we’re doing the right things in the club that maintain that leadership position for the next decade and beyond. It’s about being able to not just adapt to the rapid change that’s happening in the marketplace and in the industry, but being able to embrace it and being able to use that to our advantage and being able to transform the company in ways that let us take advantage of those changes.

It’s a very transversal role. It’s such an amazing opportunity to be able to join a club that has such a rich legacy as Real Madrid. I’m really happy to be able to bring some of the experience that I’ve had in Silicon Valley into a fresh environment.

SPORTTECHIE: What is an early objective you have at Real Madrid?

SUTHERLAND: One of the top-level [plans] is just really telling the story [of Real Madrid], which is a slightly different story than the one that has been most known about the club. The club is known as a leader in industry. It’s the most valuable football club in the world. We just again got valued by Forbes at $4.24 billion. So from a financial standpoint, it’s a leader and really on the pitch, it’s a leader, [winning]—with the exception of this last Champions League—four of the previous five Champions League trophies.

So Real Madrid has this amazing legacy and it’s got this amazing history and it’s a very well-respected club that’s a very well-known and loved global brand. But I think one of the stories that doesn’t get told a lot is sort of the story around innovation and Real Madrid as being an innovation leader.

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There’s lots of interesting internal stories around everything from the amazing operations that are behind the scenes of the match day. We have some of the most advanced technology of any football club or, really, any sports stadium in the world. There’s an amazing amount of technology that goes into putting together match day. Or even just the science behind the grounds. We have the best groundskeeper in the world. You would sort of think that keeping the pitch in condition is not rocket science, but our groundskeeper makes it look like rocket science with the amount of technology that goes into it.

SPORTTECHIE: How will you approach the fan experience?

SUTHERLAND: I’ve led product management teams, for example, that had been involved in delivering products to market that have won innovation awards, that have won multiple awards in different categories, that are always at the intersection of emerging technology areas and customer needs. That’s really where my interest is at. I think that’s a critical piece of this role at Real Madrid: we’re going to be looking at the very strong focus on the fan experience and looking at the fan relationship—and ultimately how we as a club with over half a billion fans around the world, how can we continue to look to deliver and meet the expectations and the needs of our fans on a global basis.

What that means is, it’s really about creating that one-to-one relationship but doing it at scale. And so in order to be able to do that, in order to be able to really meet our fans and customers around the world in that one-to-one relationship, it requires bringing in the best technology to the field. So that means having a sophisticated data infrastructure. It means a best-in-industry approach to our retail, our e-commerce, our stadium experience. The content that we deliver to our fans—how we create content that is highly engaging and rewarding for our fans. So a big focus of mine is going to be horizontally looking at that fan experience, and then where technology can help us improve on that and deliver where it intersects with each area of our business.

SPORTTECHIE: Your background includes a variety of tech skills, from AR and VR to deep learning. How will these specific technical skills help?

SUTHERLAND: One of the things that I value a lot is diversity of experience. So when I’m looking at teams, I’m often looking at creating diversity because the diversity of experiences, the diversity of opinions, is really what can be a critical element of innovation. And so I think that bringing these different experiences from different industries can be very healthy.

This is an industry that has been around for 100-plus years, right? At least in the sense that we’re talking about with Real Madrid. So you can get trapped in ways of thinking. The fact that Real Madrid is starting to look at bringing people from outside of the sporting industry, I think, is an interesting aspect because it shows that there’s an openness to thinking about things in slightly different ways. Just bringing a different perspective to some of the problems that the industry in general faces is going to allow us to look at them in fresh ways.

SPORTTECHIE: What are some of the trends and opportunities you see with a club that has such a global following?

SUTHERLAND: I’d say some of the biggest opportunities that we have ahead of us is that a lot of the focus in the football world naturally tends to fall around the match days. Much of that really revolves around the physical match day. There’s a lot of immediate value that we can bring to our fans who are able to attend our matches, who are watching matches on TV. But where I think there’s huge opportunity that hasn’t necessarily been fully explored in its entirely—and where I think there’s a huge opportunity for Real Madrid and for other sports entities—is really looking at how do we really deliver an experience that starts to come close to the experience that you can get by being a local for our global market.

We’re seeing so much interest around the world from all sorts of different countries. One of the things that’s very interesting to me is how do we develop the right content that is engaging, that is rewarding for fans who are not able to attend the matches. How do we deliver experiences that get them as close as we possibly can to the team, to the brand and to the players? But then also looking, even beyond that, how do we really take that brand of Real Madrid and start to share some of the values that are at the core of the club?

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We, as a club, are not just a football club. We have other sports as well. We’ve just acquired a women’s team for Real Madrid. They have a basketball team. So really helping fans to engage in all the different aspects of the Real Madrid brand, particularly in the global markets, where until now that technology hasn’t really been there always to be able to deliver that. So that comes down to a number of different things. That comes down to the new technologies that can deliver the different experiences. It comes down to the way that we think about the type of content that we produce and how we can create that in a more engaging way. But really a big focus is going to be on how we continue to deliver to our local fans. But how do we really continue to, to grow and engage those, those global fans and give them an even better experience than we’re currently giving them?

It’s really like any product development, any service, any value that we’re delivering to a customer. The first step is we need to listen to our fans. So a lot of this comes down to understanding our global audience at a local level, because this is fundamentally what is one of the most difficult things.

SPORTTECHIE: What broad industry trends are you tracking?

SUTHERLAND: Some of the reason that Real Madrid is thinking about this [is] we really value the ability to create a world-leading experience for our fans. And I think we do that in many ways and obviously we’re always going to be looking to continue to deliver that. Fundamentally there’s also a business question, and I think it was IBM that recently shared that 40% of their profits are now coming from products and services that were impossible just two years ago. That is actually going to be a key focus of the coming decade—how does the industry stop to change shape? And I think that’s where Real Madrid is really taking proactive steps. This is a key part of this new role. It’s really to look at how does the business itself start to transition in the coming years.

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There’s many different industry forces that are going to come into play. And I’m sure you are well aware of many of them already. This change is something that we are going to be ready to adapt to take advantage of. I think the fact that the businesses that are seeing this change happening and are preparing for it ahead of time are the ones that are going to maintain those big leadership positions. It’s interesting to see that many of the leading technology companies like IBM are obviously very aware of this. I think it’s interesting to see that a sports club is taking this very progressive approach to the shifting industry and really preparing to maintain that leadership position in the coming decade and beyond.

SPORTTECHIE: What was your own sporting experience while growing up in New Zealand and what led you to Real Madrid?

SUTHERLAND: In New Zealand, our version of football is rugby, of course. So rugby is the national sport. We have the All-Blacks, which is obviously a team that is really well-known around the globe. Growing up in New Zealand, a lot of the national passion is around the sport of rugby. I grew up playing many different sports. I played what we call soccer in New Zealand. I played rugby, I played basketball.

While living in Silicon Valley, one of the things that really started to attract me to Real Madrid as a club was actually the U.S. tours where the team would come and play sometimes in California. I was able to attend those matches and start to learn more about the club. And I think that’s actually something that we’re seeing as a trend—we’re starting to see a real strong growth and interest from the North American market. We obviously saw the incredible growth and interest around the Women’s World Cup that happened this year and the amazing response to that from the North American market and other markets around the world.

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